A new Nina Simone or a Roberta Flack for the 21st century, in aworld of robo-Whitneys. That, at least, was the initial pitch for Alicia Keys when she was launched in 2001, and to a commendable degree she lived up to it. As we approach the end of the decade, up to our knees in cookie cutter divas such as Rihanna and Ciara and in a world where R&B production is simplifying itself to become more ringtone-friendly, we could really do with a fully firing Keys comeback.
The Element of Freedom, her fourth studio effort, starts promisingly. Opener “Love Is Blind” makes inventive use of left-to-right stereo panning and sudden drops into a capella, and hopes are high that Keys and coproducer Kerry “Krucial” Brothers are dropping a game-changing opus, a female answer to Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks. It doesn’t take long, however, before the first warning signs rear their ugly heads: track two, “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, lazily resorts to the trite and trusted.
“That’s How Strong My Love Is” depicts love as a feat of endurance (“Through the shake of an earthquake, I will never fall…”), but Keys doesn’t quite push the idea to the extreme of Prince’s “Adore”, and falls short somewhere around Oleta Adams’ “Get Here”. Similarly, “Like the Sea” takes Stevie Nicks’ drowning metaphor from “Sara” but doesn’t take it anywhere other than the ocean floor. Tracks drift by disappointingly, anodyne and indistinguishable. (I genuinely had to keep checking the LCD display to see if we were still on the same track.)
At times, it’s like being force-fed bowl after bowl of semolina. We’re joltedout of the sugar-coma by a shouted greeting “Hey, yo B!/What up, A?”, the cheesily chummy intro to the Beyoncé duet –andtherefore, by law, future single – “Put It in a Love Song”. It’ll be everywhere, although the dreamy, sun-dazed production of the following track “This Bed” is far more deserving of the attention. When the penultimate track “How It Feels to Fly” begins, you can place a bet as to exactly when the choir will come in and how it will be deployed, and you’re probably right.
Keys is that most frustrating of things: a stunning talent who’s too happy to give the world more of which it already has a surfeit. Maybe next time she’ll push herself further
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